'I've never seen citizen engagement of this type': an interview with the ACLU's David Cole.

Author:Conniff, Ruth
Position:American Civil Liberties Union - Interview

David Cole became national legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union right before Donald Trump became President of the United States. A constitutional law expert and litigator who has argued many times before the U.S. Supreme Court, Cole took a leave from his job teaching at Georgetown University's law school to oversee the ACLU's 300 lawyers and direct the entire legal program of the nation's oldest civil liberties organization-just as ACLU's membership was about to explode.


I visited Cole in his Washington, D.C., office, where I took an elevator to the fifth floor, walked into a warren of cubicles, and yelled "Hello?"

"Hello!" Cole called back from a corner of the office. He was working at a standing desk with a pile of papers and a view of 15th Street behind him. Dressed casually, with curly hair and a friendly smile, he chatted with me for more than an hour about his new job, his optimism about the growing resistance movement, and how he was politicized by encountering feminism in college.

Q: What got you into this work?

Cole: My dad was a professor and my mom was a public school teacher and they were both very Catholic but in a very liberal, social justice kind of sense. They taught me that it's important to defend the most vulnerable and speak out for those who aren't in a position to speak for themselves. But in college, I wasn't terribly political. I was vaguely liberal. I was an English major at Yale, and on the swim team. I wasn't involved in campus politics and didn't take any political science courses. Then around my senior year in college I got interested in feminism. In terms of my political journey, feminism really was the thing that politicized me.

Q: Why was that?

Cole: I read a book called The Mermaid and the Minotaur by Dorothy Dinnerstein, about how many of our problems as a society stem from the fact that we were principally raised by mothers and not fathers, in families with traditional sex-role divisions. It made a lot of sense to me, that something so personal could have such widespread social implications.

In law school, I did a couple of internships with feminist legal organizations, including the New Haven Women's Law Collective and Equal Rights Advocates in San Francisco. The lead lawyer at the Center for Constitutional Rights on women's issues at that time was a woman named Rhonda Copelon. She came to Yale Law School and spoke about a case that she had done in the Supreme Court seeking to get Medicaid to cover abortion for poor people. And I was so impressed by her that I applied to work for the Center for Constitutional Rights.

By the time I was hired, for a summer job, Rhonda had left to teach law school. There wasn't much in the way of women's rights work there at the time, and I got involved, sort of by default, in a number of cases challenging U.S. intervention in Central America and related constitutional concerns. I became...

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